The advent of combat photography helped shape the visual history of war, as well as helped us capture a moment in time. I had a digital camera I carried with me on deployment as a tool; as a leader, it was one of the things in my kit-bag that I could turn to to aid me in my job. I could capture photos of my guys or of myself for posterity, but I also used it to record evidence. I photographed IED craters (also called the blast seats), suspicious individuals, weapons caches, or even just locations for future reference (such as the location of a specific dumpster or a hole in a perimeter fence, etc.)
And though I spent more time on the radio or clutching my weapon, I did on occasion need to focus on capturing something on camera as my primary objective. And as such I can look back at the photos I took, and I can recall why I was taking that photo, and why it was important to do so at that time. Some of those memories are stronger than others, even though memories can fade. The below photograph is not one of those. It is burned into my mind. It was almost the last thing I ever saw.
This photo shows the crater and blast seat of an IED that hit an Iraqi Army URAL loaded with Iraqi Jundi’s participating in a clearance operation in the Al Sarai neighborhood of Tal’Afar. It was February 16th, 2005. I was on quick reaction force (QRF) detail for our Squadron, and as such we were getting used regularly those few days (with the clearance mission on). The IED struck a U.S. patrol escorting the Jundi’s to their clearance area. The wounded had been taken by the other platoon escorting them, and as QRF we had to go retrieve the bodies and the Iraqi URAL truck. We took a wrecker with us from the FOB and proceed to the ambush location.
While the body bags were policed up, and the wrecker hooked up to the destroyed truck, I was on the ground doing what I always did when I was on QRF and responding to these IED strikes – taking photos of the blast seat, getting measurements of the depth, width, any debris or materials around. Part of the need in the debriefing would be a 360 degree assessment of the scene to look for potential trigger points, aiming stakes, etc. While my Stryker’s were set in overwatch positions and my men were pulling security, I was taking all of the photos that I would later pass off to the headquarters S2 intel people at Squadron.
The wrecker had hooked up to the URAL and was getting turned around for the return trip to the FOB. I decided I would get my last four photos, the scenery of 360 degrees from the crater, which I usually took in four photos (looking north, south, east, and west). I was facing south so I started with south; I turned to my right and took a shot out over to the west, looking at a field, a wadi system, and the next neighborhood over. I turned to my right again and photographed the route north, which was the main thoroughfare out of this part of town. I had the feeling that I had been standing out here like a war tourist way too long, and that I needed to wrap this up.
I think everyone in combat eventually has that feeling. The ‘something isn’t right here’ feeling, or in this case the ‘I have been exposed out here for too long now, and nothing has happened – that’s not a good thing’ feeling.
“I need to wrap this up” I said to my platoon sergeant who was kicking as debris with his boot, having a look to see what he could see. I turned to my right once more and snapped the above picture. As I was lowering the camera, I saw this bright, reddish-orange globe appear in my field of vision, just slightly above eye level and to the right. In my field of view, it stood out very much so from the black wall of the building you see there. I had no idea what this globe of light was, but it reminded me of when I used to see movies in the theater when I was a kid, and there was a little circle that would appear in the top right corner of the screen, a visual indicator for the projector operation to turn on the next reel (a ‘cue-mark’).
What is life doing with a reel-change dot? I thought. It is really funny how fast your brain operates in the span of one second or less – almost dreamlike, where you hit snooze and in the span of ten minuets have a dream that seems to last hours.
A spit second after this bright reddish-orange globe appeared, it dissipated and was gone; what replaced it within milliseconds was the snapping-pop of rounds in my right ear, and the concrete chips and dust that now began to dance on that black wall in front of me. I had the camera in my left hand and as I turned left (away from where that globe was) my right hand went for my M-4 carbine. The telltale cracks of the AK-47 could now be heard. I ran like never before to where a large concrete block was sitting on the sidewalk; behind it currently was one of my E5 ground team leaders, and he was using the block’s one-meter by one-meter size as cover. Behind him in the street was one of my Strykers.
As I ran towards that block I could hear the whiz of the AK rounds as they soared overhead. I also heard the metallic pings as rounds hit the slat armor of the Stryker, ricocheting and scraping down its side and into the road as I dove for cover. I got there, slamming the camera on top of the block to get rid of it, and then getting a proper grip on my weapon. There were a few shots back from my dismounts. Now there was silence. Just the sound of the Stryker engine purring, and some chatter on the radio. I breathed heavily, and looked around. I looked at the far side of the street where some of my men were taking cover behind a large building. I then turned to my right and looked next to me at my ground team leader, as he looked right back at me [it was an ironic moment right then, because I had just eaten my words, something that I had previously said to him, which I will write about some other time].
Someone was yelling to one of my men to get on the .50 cal, but the Haj had displaced from wherever they were. I grabbed the camera and pulled it back down, stuffing it in my vest pouch where I kept it. The abrupt sound of AK-47 fire erupted again; only five or six rounds of automatic fire, but it was enough to get a general vicinity. So we peered up from over that concrete block, and I sent back about four or five decently placed shots at the concrete wall by the entrance of an alleyway, about one hundred-fifty yards away. At the time to me it seemed like a perfect place for them to have popped from to shoot again, because they could fade back away into the bowels of the alleys and side streets of that neighborhood.
A few more pot-shots went back towards the offending alleyway complex, and my platoon sergeant called to cease-fire. We cautiously displaced in teams to mount-up, getting back into our Strykers. We continued our mission and returned the URAL truck back to the FOB’s boneyard. But I will never forget that moment, and that eerie feeling that it was time to wrap this up, right before the shooting started. In case you were wondering or had not put it together, the ‘globe’I saw was the ass-end of a 7.62 tracer round as it whizzed past my head. I always was very fortunate that the Hajji’s were poor shots, and that the AK-47 iron sights aren’t really too good.
Here’s the whole scene, looking west. The concrete block I sought cover behind would be just visible by the front tire of the Stryker. It is the same Stryker the rounds ping’d off of as I ran.